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15.1: Introduction to Language

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    Learning Objectives
    1. List some of the adaptive functions of animal communication; how do these compare to the adaptive functions of human language
    2. Explain why memory is a component of language function
    3. List brain structures involved in various types of memory
    4. List the stages of speech production during the first 12 months after birth
    5. Describe Alzheimer's Disease and the Autism Spectrum Disorders and brain changes associated with each


    In this section, we examine communication in other species, the role of memory in language function, language acquisition, and two disorders, Alzheimer's Disease and Autism, both of which involve language dysfunction as well as other alterations of function.

    Communication in Animals

    by Kenneth A. Koenigshofer, Ph.D., Chaffey College

    Humans are highly social animals, along with many other social species, including social mammals such as wolves, lions, elephants, baboons, chimpanzees, gorillas, water buffalo, dolphins, sea lions, and whales, and social insects such as bees, ants, and wasps. Living in groups has many adaptive advantages such as group hunting, predator defense, food gathering and other forms of cooperation, helping, and, in some mammals such as the mothers in a lion pride, even cooperative nursing of the young within their social group.

    Contrast social species with species which are solitary, such as tigers which have no interactions with other tigers except during mating, and when females nurse and care for their offspring. Although both lions and tigers are big cat species, they are highly dissimilar in regard to social life. One reason for this vast difference between lions and tigers is that lions evolved into social creatures because they lived in the open plains of the savannah where group hunting was far more successful than solitary hunting. By contrast, tigers evolved in dense forest where plenty of cover favored quiet stalking and stealth, best accomplished by solitary hunting strategies.

    It will come as no surprise to you that animals that live in groups communicate with one another, in part to coordinate their activities, to strengthen social bonds within the group, to warn of danger, to share the location of a food source, to express emotions, to attract mates, to reinforce dominance hierarchies, and so on.

    Animal communication can involve any sensory modality. For example, lions of the same group who have been separated greet one another by rubbing their bodies together as they walk past one another. Humans use touch to express affection and sometimes sexual interest. Chimpanzees, like humans, hug and even kiss one another to express affection. Many species mark territory by using the smell of their urine (think of dogs, but male lions do the same, and some species of monkey have scent glands that release a smelly substance on the leaves of the trees they move through). Many animals use visual signals such as bright coloration in many species of birds and tropical fish; other species use visual gestures and facial expressions. For example, chimpanzees raise a hand high above their head and shake it vigorously to signal their displeasure and to threaten other chimps. Bees communicate the direction and distance to a food source by their waggle dance. Wolves and dogs, lions, tigers, primates, and many other species bare their teeth and lower their head as a visual signal communicating threat. Finally, many species utilize auditory means of communication such as screeches, howls, croaks, barks, songs (birds and whales), clicks (dolphins), screams, crying (visual and auditory cues) and laughing in humans, and many other sounds such as those made by crickets or other insects.

    Chimpanzee in Uganda with its mouth wide open showing large canine teeth; a coyote with head raised skyward is howling.Chimpanzee in Uganda with its mouth wide open showing large canine teeth; a coyote with head raised skyward is howling.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Here a chimpanzee uses visual and auditory signals to communicate threat. A coyote howls to call its pack. (Images from Wikimedia Commons; (left) File:Chimpanzee, Kibale, Uganda (15244558084).jpg;; by Rod Waddington; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. (right) File:Howl (cropped).jpg;; by USFWS Mountain-Prairie; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).

    All of these various forms of communication use sensory signals received by others who interpret their meaning. However, none have the special properties of human language. Human languages use arbitrary symbols (words do not have innate meaning but acquire meaning by learning; there are approximately 600,000 words in English), and words can be strung into sentences by rules of grammar which permit an infinite number of different and complex meanings to be communicated, a situation which linguists sometimes refer to as "the infinite use of finite means," an infinite number of sentences can be constructed from a finite number of words using a finite number of grammatical rules. Although some animals such as chimpanzees, bonobo chimpanzees, and gorillas have been taught American Sign Language with interesting results, the full bloom of human language appears to require specialized brain circuitry present only in specific, although somewhat widespread, areas of the human brain.

    Memory and Language

    "You need memory to keep track of the flow of conversation" (Goldstein, 2005).

    The interaction between memory and language does not seem very obvious at first, but this interaction is necessary when trying to have a conversation. Memory is also required to know and recall the meanings of words.

    This is not a simple process which can be learned within days. In childhood everybody learns to communicate, but it is a process lasting for years.
    The connection between memory and language becomes most obvious when an impairment occurs when certain brain areas are damaged.

    Basics of Memory and Language Interactions


    Explicit memory, also known as declarative, can be subdivided into semantic and episodic memory. Procedural memory and priming effects are components of the implicit memory.

    Table 14.9.1. Brain regions important in memory and language and their interaction.

    Brain regions Memory
    Frontal lobe, parietal lobe, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex Short-term Memory/ Working Memory
    Hippocampus Short-term Memory → Long-term Memory
    Medial temporal lobe (neocortex) Declarative Memory
    Amygdala, Cerebellum Procedural Memory


    Language is an essential system for communication which highly influences our life. This system uses sounds, symbols and gestures for the purpose of communication. Visual and auditory systems are the entrance-pathway for language to the brain. The motor system is responsible for speech and writing production, the exit-pathway for language. In this sense, language processing in the brain (like other types of cognition) occurs between processing by the sensory and motor systems. Most of the knowledge about brain mechanism for language comes from studies of language deficits resulting from brain damage. Though there are about 10,000 different languages and dialects in the world, all of them express the subtleties of human experience and emotion.

    Acquisition of language

    A phenomenon which occurs daily and in everybody’s life is the acquisition of language. Theorists like Catherine Snow and Michael Tomasello think that acquisition of language begins at birth. Babbling in the first six months of life activates brain regions later involved in speech production.

    The ability to understand the meaning of words begins before the first birthday, and progresses faster than the ability to speak. Babies show comprehension of more complex sentences, even though they may still be in the one-word stage of speech development.

    The different stages of speech production in the first year of life are listed in the table below.

    Age Stage of Acquisition Example
    6th month Stage of babbling:

    - systematic combining of vowels and consonants

    7th – 10th month Stage of repetitive syllable-babbling:

    - higher part of consonants → paired with a vowel – monosyllabic

    reduplicated babbling

    da, ma, ga

    mama, dada, gaga

    11th – 12th month Stage of variegated babbling:

    - combination of different consonants and vowels

    bada, dadu
    12th month Usage of first words - :

    - prephonological → consonant-vowel (-consonant)

    car, hat

    Researchers like Charlotte Bühler (1928), a German psychologist, think that speaking the first word occurs around the tenth month, whereas Elizabeth Bates et al. (1992) proposed a period between eleven and 13 months. The one-word stage described above can last from two to ten months. Until the second year of life a vocabulary of about 50 words develops, four times more than the child actually uses in speech. Two thirds of the language processed is still babbling. After this stage of learning, vocabulary increases rapidly. The so-called vocabulary spurt causes an increment of about one word every two hours. From that point on children learn to have fluent conversations with a simple grammar usually containing some errors. Over the first three years of life, the length of sentences and the grammatical output improves.

    Children first learn to conjugate verbs and to decline nouns using regular rules. To produce irregular forms is more difficult, because they have to be learned and stored in Long-term memory one by one. The observation of speech is important for acquisition of grammatical skills. Around the third birthday the complexity of language increases exponentially.


    Alzheimer's Disease

    Discovered in 1906 by Alois Alzheimer, this disease is the most common type of dementia. Alzheimer’s is characterized by symptoms such as loss of memory, loss of language skills and impairments in skilled movements. Additionally, other cognitive functions such as planning or decision-making which are connected to the frontal and temporal lobe can be also be impaired. The correlation between memory and language in this context is very important because the two work together in order to establish and maintain conversations. When both are impaired, communication becomes a difficult task. People with Alzheimer’s have reduced working memory capability, so they cannot keep in mind all of the information they have heard during a conversation. They also forget words which they need to denote items, express their desires, and to understand what they are told. Affected persons also change their behavior; they become anxious, suspicious or restless and they may have delusions or hallucinations.

    In the early stages of the disorder, affected persons become less energetic and may suffer little loss of memory. They are still able to dress themselves, to eat and to communicate enough to get by. Middle stages of the disease are characterized by problems of navigation and orientation. Affected persons may not be able to find their way home or they may even forget where they live. In the late stages of the disease, the patients’ ability to speak, read and write is severely impaired. They are no longer able to denote objects and to talk about their feelings and desires. So their family and the nursing staff have great difficulty finding out what the patients want to tell them. In the end-state, persons with Alzheimer's disease do not show any response or reaction. They lie in bed, have to be fed and are totally helpless. Most of them die after four to six years following diagnosis, although the disease can last from three to twenty years. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish Alzheimer’s from other related disorders. Only after death when observing the shrinkage of the brain can one definitely diagnose Alzheimer’s disease.

    In the Alzheimer brain:
    · The cortex shrivels up, damaging areas involved in thinking, planning and remembering.
    · Shrinkage is especially severe in the hippocampus, which, as discussed in earlier modules, plays a key role in formation of new memories.
    · Ventricles (fluid-filled spaces within the brain) grow larger as the surrounding brain tissue dies away.

    Long before the first symptoms appear, nerve cells that store and retrieve information have already begun to degenerate. There are two theories about the causes of Alzheimer’s disease. The first describes plaques, protein fragments, which impair the synaptic connections between nerve cells. They arise when little fragments released from nerve cell walls associate with other fragments from outside the cell. These combined fragments, the plaques, attach to the outside of nerve cells and destroy the synaptic connections. Then the nerve cells start to die. The second theory explains that tangles limit the functions of nerve cells. They are twisted fibers of another protein that form inside brain cells and destroy a vital cell transport system made of proteins. But scientists have not yet found out the exact role of plaques and tangles.

    - Alzheimer tissue has many fewer nerve cells and synapses than a healthy brain.
    - Plaques, abnormal clusters of protein fragments, build up between nerve cells.
    - Dead and dying nerve cells contain tangles, which are made up of twisted fibers of another protein.

    Alzheimer’s progress is separated into three stages: In the early stages (1), tangles and plaques begin to evolve in brain areas where learning, memory, thinking and planning takes place. This may begin 20 years before diagnosis. In the middle stages (2), plaques and tangles start to spread to areas for speaking and understanding speech. The sense of where your body is in relation to objects around you is impaired. This may last from 2–10 years. In advanced Alzheimer’s disease (3), most of the cortex is damaged, so that the brain starts to shrink seriously and cells begin to die. The people affected lose their ability to speak and communicate and they do not recognize their family or people they know. This stage may generally last from one to five years.

    Today, more than 18 million people suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is often only related to older people. Five percent of the people older than 65 years and fifteen to twenty percent of the people older than 80 years suffer from Alzheimer’s. But people in their late thirties and forties can also be affected by this heritable disease. Though heritable, the probability of getting Alzheimer’s when one's parents suffer from the typical older-generation-Alzheimer’s is not very high.


    Autism is a condition of neurodevelopment, which causes neurodevelopmental disorders in several ways. For more than a decade, autism has been studied in the context of Autistic Spectrum Disorders, including mild and severe autism, as well as Asperger's syndrome. Individuals with autism, for example, have restricted perception and problems in information processing. The often associated intellectual giftedness (savants) only holds for a minority of people with autism; most possess normal or below average intelligence.

    There are different types of autism:

    • Asperger’s syndrome – usually arising by the age of three years
    • infantile autism – arising between nine and eleven months after birth

    Two different types of infantile autism are low functioning autism (LFA) and high functioning autism (HFA). LFA describes children with an IQ lower than 80, while HFA refers to those with an IQ higher than 80. The disorders in both types are similar, but they are more severe in children with LFA.

    The disorders are mainly defined by the following symptoms:

    1. the inability for normal social interaction, e.g. normal relations with other children, perhaps related to impairments in Theory of Mind (TOM), the ability to "read/understand the minds" and intentions of others
    2. the inability for ordinary communication, e.g. disorder of spoken language/idiosyncratic language
    3. stereotypical behavior, e.g. stereotypical and restricted interests with an atypical content

    To investigate the inability of children with autistic disorder to manage normal communication and language, the University of Pittsburgh performed experiments to provide possible explanations for some of their symptoms. Sentences, stories or numbers were presented to children with autism and to normal children. The researchers concluded that the disorders in people with HFA and LFA are caused by an impairment in declarative memory. This impairment leads to difficulties in learning and remembering sentences, stories or personal events, whereas the ability to learn numbers is still available. It has been shown that these children are not able to link words they have heard to their general knowledge, thus the words are only partially learned, often with an idiosyncratic meaning. This may in part explain why LFA and HFA affected children differ in their way of thinking from normal children. It is often difficult for them to understand others and vice versa (perhaps due to deficits in TOM or one or more social processing modules in the brain). Furthermore scientists believe that the process of language learning depends on an initial vocabulary of fully meaningful words. It is assumed that these children do not possess such a vocabulary, thus their language development is impaired. In a few cases the acquisition of language fails completely, therefore in some cases the children are not able to use language in general. The inability to learn and use language may be a consequence of an impairment of declarative memory. This might also cause a low IQ because much of the process of human learning is language-mediated. In HFA the IQ is not significantly lower than the IQ of normal children. This milder form of autism correlates well with their better understanding of word meanings.

    Image of a human brain from above showing different activation patterns in person with autism and in person without autism.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): fMRI-derived image of difference between brains of autistic and control groups. Activation during visuomotor coordination: Autism Group [yellow], Control Group [Blue], Overlap (both groups) [green]. Even researchers who study autism can display a negative bias against people with the condition. For instance, researchers performing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans systematically report changes in the activation of some brain regions as deficits in the autistic group — rather than evidence simply of their alternative, yet sometimes successful, brain organization. (Image and caption from Wikimedia Commons; File:Powell2004Fig1A.jpeg;; by Ralph-Axel Müller, Modifications made by Eubulides; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license. Laurent Mottron, Changing perceptions: The power of autism ; Nature 479, 33–35 (03 November 2011) ; doi:10.1038/479033a En ligne : 2011-11-02).

    The causes of autism are not yet known. It is still not clear whether the Spectrum Disorders are caused by genetic abnormalities, or non-genetic neurological factors such as brain damage or biochemical abnormalities. One possibility is that during brain development prior to birth new neuron migration and/or neural pruning may be impaired leading to atypical brain circuit formation (Koenigshofer, 2011, 2016).


    Goldstein, E. G. (2005). Cognitive Psychology - Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience, p. 137, Thomson Wadsworth.

    Pinker, S. The Language Instinct, p.269f

    Koenigshofer, K.A. (2011, 2016 revised e-book edition). Mind Design: The Adaptive Organization of Human Nature, Minds, and Behavior. Pearson Learning Solutions, Boston.



    Steven Pinker: The Language Instinct; The Penguin Press, 1994, ISBN 0140175296
    Gisela Klann-Delius: Spracherwerb; Sammlung Metzler, Bd 325; Verlag J.B.Metzler; Stuttgart, Weimar, 1999; ISBN 3476103218
    Arnold Langenmayr: Sprachpsychologie - Ein Lehrbuch; Verlag für Psychologie, Hogrefe, 1997; ISBN 3801710440
    Mark F. Bear, Barry W. Connors, Michael A. Paradiso: Neuroscience - Exploring The Brain; Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 3rd edition, 2006; ISBN 0781760038



    Although forms of communication exist even in species which are primarily solitary, social species communicate more frequently with other members of their species. Animal communication can utilize signals from any of the sensory modalities. Vocal communication is common in many species, however only our species has developed a form of communication with the complexity of human language. Language use requires memory. Different areas of the brain are involved in different types of memory (as was covered previously in Chapter 10). Normal children begin to comprehend language before the end of their first year. Language expression begins with several stages of babbling typically followed by the production of first words by a year old. Both Alzheimer's and Autism are disorders of the brain that involve language difficulties. fMRI studies reveal that persons with autism have brain organization different from that in persons without autism.


    "Communication in Animals" is written by Kenneth A. Koenigshofer, Ph.D., Chaffey College

    "Memory and Language" adapted by Kenneth A. Koenigshofer, Ph.D., Chaffey College, from Ch. 7, Cognitive Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience; Wikibooks; ; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.

    This page titled 15.1: Introduction to Language is shared under a mixed license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kenneth A. Koenigshofer (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .